Friday, February 27, 2009

Oscar Grant's 23rd Birthday is Today. A Tribute And Reportback Of When The Mesherle Verdict Dropped.

Today, Oscar Grant III would have been 23 years old if his life had not been needlessly stripped away by another man who is but a small cog in a large machine of institutional oppression. Today, I will light a candle for the evolution of justice and humanity, and healing.

As promised, I will share another perspective of living in Downtown Oakland which has become the heart of the outcry against these issues. This is an account of January 30th, 2009, the day when Mesherle was released on bail for murder.

January 30th, Oakland.

I’m on the phone with my mom in Florida, having a conversation about her not so successful trip to see Obama’s inauguration. I get a text from a friend who went to the Mesherle trial, it simply says: “Cop released on bail. Protest on court house steps now.”

My heart sinks, i am distracted, my attention leaving the conversation and going to the sound of helicopters and sirens. I can also sense the outrage in the air. I start to feel nauseous. I don’t have words yet. But before i can say what’s up, my mom cheerfully says loving nice-talking-to-yous, i-love-yous and good-byes. I say them back and hang up.

The nausea starts to burn me up. i feel dizzy. i text back Jen Mei to say i am leaving my apartment for the protest. She sends back updates of where the protest is moving to. I leave, feeling the rage bubbling up. I call the Breakroom, the cafe where i spin sometimes, tell them the news. I advise them to shut down, lock up and go home. They do. I hate to be alarmist, but i feel that there are people who are probably going to act out their rage on a more physically destructive level than i will. On one level, i envy those who may find some catharsis with the sound of smashing glass. I peep my head into Red Door Cafe and tell Ahmed to lock up too. He is just now hearing the news from me. I see his heart sink too, and him shake his head.

Owners of small businesses are hastily nailing up wood board over their store windows. Those who had not boarded up their stores posted paper flyers, calling for justice for Oscar Grant and featuring images of him. These flyers were usually placed right smack in the center of the store window. They were signs of support, but also hopeful talismans of protection. I was immediately transported back to living in New York City when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center buildings, and how Muslim and Sikh business were targeted and smashed up. The U.S. flag became the symbol that meant “don’t hurt me, i’m American too.” I remember getting into a Sikh’s taxi and counting 5 U.S. flags within the interior of the car alone. More flag stickers were on both bumpers and windows.

I continue down 14th street towards City Hall, where i see a group of protestors in the intersection of 14th and Broadway. On my way, I walk up to the Joyce Gordon Gallery. Joyce is outside with her chic artsy elder self, stylish black glasses framing her dark brown face, her signature short curly white fro shining. We both greet each other, shaking our heads. We comment that this verdict may as well mean “I hate Oakland. We vote to destroy it.” Concerned youth have given her an Oscar Grant III poster to hang in her large picture glass gallery window. She has positioned herself outside, at once checking the scene and protecting her gallery. Staff from Awaken Cafe walk over to talk to Joyce, asking for her thoughts around staying or locking up and going. I bid my farewells, and continue towards the crowd.

There are maybe 50, 75 people. Traffic has been stopped, and a brotha in his 30’s maybe is on top of a AC Transit Bus with a bullhorn, saying that it doesn’t matter if the person who was murdered was Black, Asian, Latino, whoever... the killing has to stop. The chant of No Justice, No Peace rises, signs depicting Oscar Grant and other black men who have lost their lives to police bullets in the back, and other senseless police brutalities. I see Navina and her sis. We are happy to see each other but sad look is exchanged. We hug. A brotha hands me a sign, and we all start walking down Broadway chanting “Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” It did feel powerful to be walking in the middle of the street in broad daylight with impassioned people. The streets were ours.

We reach the Oakland Police Station at Broadway and 7th Street, and converge on it. Several riot cops are standing there in line, blocking the front door. We swell around them, and the chants change to No Justice, No Peace, Fuck The Police! One dreadlocked brotha with dark glasses steps up to the line of cops, and with a bullhorn in their faces, charges them as being complicit, mindless tools of oppression that are lacking humanity. The flow of eloquent rage smoothly blends back into chants of No Justice, No Peace! Fuck The Police!

Our crowd begins to spread out, re-taking over the street intersection in front of OPD. Signs calling for the imprisonment of racist killer cops are raised in the air, pumping up and down in rhythm with chants. Traffic comes to a stop, and the crowd walks between cars, chanting. An SUV in traffic turns out to be an undercover cop car, and someone close by notices- and smashes the car window. My gut tightened, as i felt calm also instinctively wash over me. Its about to go down. In real time, i don’t have time to process all of this, because as soon as the sound of glass reached me, 2 seconds later, several cops poured out of the vehicle like angry and scared clowns. They each had arm loads of something. In a frantic dance, they all swung their hands out, and little black round objects flew in all directions. Everything goes slow motion, and i eye the location of where each little black object landed, and slowly back away, breathing deep, the calm overpowering the frenzy in my head and gut. Very loud explosions like staccato gunshots fill the air, and i see smoke. The protesting crowd seems to evaporate, clearing the intersection. The smoke clears (it wasn’t tear gas), and i see protestors on each of the four corners, and we seem thinner now. Someone is shouting for us not to disperse, to stay together. My adrenaline is somehow feeding my calm, making me buzz with an even, hyper-alertness. I see an abandoned bicycle in still in the street, and i pull it to the corner and rest it on a lightpost. I also see one of the concussion/smoke grenades in the street, unexploded. I use the zoom on my camera to take a picture without getting too close.

I point it out to people so they can stay clear. “Is it live?” One man asks. I decide that it is, and say yes. Another man walks over to pick it up to take it out from under the path of the now cautiously moving traffic. I lower my sign to shield my eyes in case it explodes and tell him to be careful. The idea of throwing it back into the cops occurs to me, but I am glad that he just disposes of it (in a gutter i think). I see a young white woman with short, curly dirty blonde hair and glasses move closer to the lightpost where I am. I ask her if the bike is hers, she says yes and slowly picks it up. She seems to be in some kind of adrenaline high as well. We stand on the corner and watch the protestors start to regroup a block further uptown.

“Can I walk with you?” She asks. “I feel safer just walking with someone.”
I tell her she most definitely can.
We start walking uptown on the Broadway sidewalk, me holding my sign, she walking her bike. An older black woman with braids up in a bun stops us, looking concerned.
“Did anyone get hurt? I heard something that sounded like gunshots.”
We let her know that they were just loud smoke grenades, and about the police vehicle with the smashed window. I flip through my digital camera pics and show her the grenade. She tsk tsks and shakes her head. She looks at us through dark shades and tells us that she has seen a lot, been through the sixties. She spoke of channeling this energy into the power of the pen, making sure that local representatives, the police stations and newspapers were contacted. She was glad that the Chief Of Police resigned. She also spoke about how the Oakland Police Department imports cops from Russia because no one wants to work here. The result being having cops who are not acquainted with, and unexperienced with connecting with diverse Oakland populations. The woman was a big advocate for police reform through recruiting people from the neighborhoods they will police. Cops who know kids by name cause they see them at church. We nodded, and conversed in agreement.

After a brief moment we exchanged smiles, thank yous, be carefuls and good byes. The young woman and I continued walking uptown. I know i have to head home soon. I see a chicken wire fence near a bus stop, and i take time to slide the post of my sign through the links so that it is high up, defiantly calling for justice against killer cops. When I am finished, a brother with a wool skully hat steps towards me from the bus stop, and says to me real close in my ear:
“People are excited about Obama. And that’s a good thing. But we need to be writing Feinstein about this stuff. She’ll fix things.”
I smell cigarettes and scented oils. He pulls back and looks me in the eye.
“Feinstein” He reiterates, giving me two thumbs up. I nod and smile, thank him and keep moving.

My bicycle friend is bending over helping a homeless man whose shopping cart of possessions has fallen over. Full plastic bags, clothes and other items are all over the sidewalk. Green eyes look up at me, and my bicycle friend says:
“I’m going to help this man for a minute. Could you walk with my bike and i’ll catch up with you in a minute?”
I say yes, and take the bike calmly, as if (white) people I just met ask me to walk away with their bike all the time. I walk slowly with the bike, and realize that i am unconsciously walking slow to make clear that i am not going to quickly jump on the bike and speed away. I break into a more normal stride, clear that all that isn’t necessary. I also feel touched by this genuine exchange that is happening.

I reach the corner of 14th and Broadway, and police are shooing people away. Wtf? I pretend not to see them, and lean the bike against the lightpost, pretending to be tying my shoelace or something. My ruse seems to invisibilize me, and practically everyone else is shooed away. My bicycle friend walks up and thanks me, looking around at the cops. I tell her that the cops are dispersing people, but i’m just like whatever. Still, i gotta head home. She thanks me again, and takes her bike. I ask her what her name is, she says Tonya. I formally introduce myself. She asks if i want a ride home on the seat while she pedals standing up. I laugh graciously, and say i’m ok, touching her shoulder in thanks. She smiles and rides off.

The cops are now doing the cop parade thing in the middle of the street, walking a dozen cops across. It looks so fascist. I see a friend, a sista i am going to refer to as B, who is shaking her head at the cops.
“They got all the twist ties hanging from their belts, they are just ready to start mass arrests. Look at em.”
Indeed, the cops look like they have a mission. We are behind them, watching them process up 14th street towards Lake Merritt.
B looks exasperated.

“What’s it gonna take? Do I have to join the police force and start killing white people? Or other cops?”

Another sista walking by hears B, and reacts by covering her mouth and saying a long “OOOOOOOOOOO!” The sound evokes approval of daring schoolyard antics, or hitting someone’s weakness right on the money when doing the dozens. Essentially... B said it.
Said the “unspeakable”, the idea of white communities being subjected to the same loss, the same needless suffering, the same injustice, the "same" oppression. The question resounded in my head. What would it really take for police reform?

I think of B’s words as I turn the key to my front door. Once inside, I can see from my window that cops were amassing on Harrison. I get a text from Kenji, it says that the cops are doing mass arrests on Harrison and 14th. B was right.

I am left with questions.

The last protest, protestors smashed up corporate stores instead of mom and pops places. Wells Fargo was the first to go down. What is the next step?

Politics of riots aside, another question burns uncomfortably in me. Where are the riots for Annette Garcia? Are there lower levels of outrage when women of color get shot in the back and killed by cops?

In a time of financial crisis, the OPD has tons of positions available. What can be done about deadly combinations of recession, capitalism, oppression, and the exaltation of legalized, primarily male violence?

The last question is around justice and healing.

In 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV put an Amish schoolhouse under seige, and shot and killed 5 schoolgirls (ages 6 through 13) before killing himself . The response of the Amish community to this harrowing tragedy made the news, because it was unlike many responses usually seen. The outpouring of compassion directed to the Amish families, such as a fund for the affected families was refused... unless the family of the shooter was also given funds to help them recover from their loss as well. Family members of the murdered girls went to the wife and children of the shooter and comforted them. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts' funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims. Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, "Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you've given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you."

Will justice be served by putting anyone through the twisted, unjust, capitalist monster that is the prison industrial system? Will healing and reform occur that way? I do want justice, but i don’t think we have a very real and functioning justice system. Of course, a part of me wants Mesherle with all his white privilege and guilt to experience what men who look like me are forced through all the time. I want an example to be made, a sign to humanity impaired, racist white cops that its no longer open season on black men. An example that signals the crumbling of the racist foundations of an institution. And at the very least, a mechanism that protects our communities from trigger-happy cops.

But perhaps, there are other ways towards healing and justice. Ways that we have yet to create. Ways that leave the family destroying eye-for-an-eye ways behind. Ways that truly rehabilitate and cause real change. Ways that others may have pointed a compassionate finger towards.

I’m open to suggestions.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

BLACK LOVE in PUBLIC! 12 Noon, This Saturday in SF

see. think. dance. has been committed to a concept called The Intimacy Project. And now see. think. dance. is bringing the beginning of a Love Movement y'all. I can't think of a more perfect and beautiful way to conclude Black History Month. On a personal tip I'm also feelin the synchronicity of this event,not only because this Saturday would have been my dad's 77th birthday (Lloyd I. Wright, rest his soul) but also because i just blogged about there needing to be more body positive spaces in public. In short... imma be there for sure. Please fwd this out to the bay area brothas and sistas who you know would want to be a part of such an event, or even just wanna witness it... Lets get our BLIP on!! :)

Location to be announced. Facebook link: BLACK LOVE in PUBLIC

see. think. dance.

The Intimacy Project presents
a mass demonstration of affection
Saturday :: Feb. 28 :: 12pm - 1pm ::
Location TBA

PHOTO: Bethanie Hines, PHOTO DESIGN: Keira Chang

a mass demonstration of affection

Saturday - February 28 - 2009
12pm - 1pm
San Francisco, CA (exact location TBA)

For ONE hour on ONE day, The Intimacy Project calls upon Black folks in the Bay Area to SHOW their love for one another.

In a city that is slowly rendering Blackness invisible.
In a time that
fails to support us as emotional beings.

This is an EXAMPLE to OURSELVES + to OTHERS...
That Black folks are capable of deep + sustained affection towards each other.
That we are able to heal wounds, old + new, starting with the simple act of TOUCH.

To RSVP/ participate/ engage/ question :::
via email
via Facebook BLACK LOVE in PUBLIC

The Intimacy Project is...

an ongoing collaboration between artists/educators who draw creative inspiration from their connection to the African continent and are deeply invested in social change through the re-integration of the mind and the body.

By examining the barriers to intimacy amongst those who were once property, The Intimacy Project invokes the historical legacy of slavery on Black minds and bodies as a departure point to uncover solutions for greater honesty and communication across age, gender, class and race.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sex Positivity: Carnivals of Culture, Puritanism, Oppression and Body Positive Spaces.

Hello? Anybody there? Sorry, its been a couple weeks since i last posted! But the truth can now be told... i was back in Jamaica with my honey, having a sweet time being very offline. Very sweet time. I still have tactile memories of our sunbaked, suntan-oil slicked bodies holding each other in the ocean, kissing while waves pushed us together. mmmmm!!! (to the family and friends i didn't get to see this time around, beg yu give me a bly, soon come back! this was a strickly honeytime flex...)

while in Jamaica, my partner commented on something that i wasn't really able to see as someone who grew up in the culture. The fact that most adults we talked to (age 30's through young 40's middle class Jamaicans, decent percentage of Catholic upbringing, living at least outwardly heteroexual lives) seem very comfortable talking about sex/sexuality. And with people they have just met. I'm not talking about come-ons, just casual matter-of-fact convo that involves sex in ways that people in the States may involve an anecdote from work, or relating a story of some old friend they just ran into. My sweetie pointed out several examples: A female friend of mine casually shares about her masturbation habits in the first 30 minutes of meeting said sweetie. A male friend recalls performance anxiety in first sexual encounters during a conversation on high school. At dinner in a fancy-ish restaurant, a pregnant female friend reports how her husband woefully strokes her breast with longing, because he knows from experience that her breast will no longer be "his" when the baby is born. Still another woman my honey just met shares how she feels that her sex life has gotten better and better with marriage.

Its only when this is pointed out to me, that i see the pattern. The gf then says with a "i shoulda had a V8" kinda lightbulb realization, "Of course. Its not about Jamaicans. Its about US. The U.S. is a puritanical culture!" It was a great conversation.

And it left me thinking. Thinking about how dominating culture-centric the U.S. is, establishing a standard by which people are determined to be "hypersexual" or... whatever the antonym of "hypersexual" is. Usually, people of color and LGBTQ folks are stigmatized as "hypersexual", while this sexuality is coveted, obsessed about, and fetishized.

Of course, there is a spectrum of appropriateness in every culture, and right now in Jamaica the Broadacasting Commission is banning the radio airplay of sexually explicit songs, a move inspired by the relatively new dancehall phenomenon of "daggering". Daggering is a style of dance typified by simulations of hard banging, rough sex. One of the signature songs, "Hundred Stab" challenges men to pound into a woman 100 hundred times in under 60 seconds. There is an added "extreme sport" factor where a man may jump from a chair or speaker box onto a woman being (consensually!!) held like a net, aiming his groin at hers. Or a woman may run full tilt across a room to jump onto a man. People definitely leave dances with smiles and bruises! This video and this video will elucidate. Whew!!

But again, levels of "appropriateness" are relative. Displays of homosexual activity is definitely staunchly oppressed, and amorousness between same sex couples could be life threatening. Also many members of the dancehall community are not happy about the stigma being placed on the good time they are having, especially since this is near Jamaican carnival time, where the soca/calypso community parades half-naked in the street, emanating rhythmic rapture and beaming with sexuality (see pic above). The dancehall community asks, why is this ok, and our dancing is not? Class and color raises tensions, as dancehall has roots in dark skinned, working class people, and the carnival community has roots in "brown" middle class people. Issues of what is ok to model for children also raise heated debates, with class structured values bouncing back and forth.

Jamaican culture clashes aside, if we look at the picture above, an ironic fact may come to mind. I cannot think of a national cultural event in the United States that echoes this level of costumery, body/sexuality celebration and dance (besides other isolated Brazilian and Caribbean Carnival celebrations here). The closest that would seem to come to this, is Gay Pride. I believe this is ironic for many reasons, but also because here, it is puritanical and heterosexist oppression that has created the need for a space that asserts humanity, and celebrates the body, love and sexuality. Sure, us straight folks have the privilege to walk down the street holding hands, and be amorous in public without fear of harm (perhaps race might complicate that, but mostly, its a pretty assured straight privilege), and the media floods us all with normalizing images of heterosex and affirms its naturality.... But there is not really a national event where heteros- or better yet- EVERYONE regardless of genders and sexualities, can just walk down the street, sun on our skin, revelling in our beautiful bodies, dancing and getting hot and happy with other hot and happy people. One woman i know who does the Jamaican carnival in "full" costume reported having a rapturous experience... dancing down the street, being transported by calypso and soca polyrhythms, feeling free in her body and soul, and looking around and seeing her closest friends also enraptured. A powerful moment of being sublimely and utterly present opened up... and with it came the realization, the message to mark this moment as the happiest moment in her life. Tears streamed down her face, and the ecstacy raised her even higher.

So what do we need here? A Pan-Gendered, Pan-Sexual, Sex Positive Parade? I'll DJ!! When not dancing my half nekkid butt off. The event would need to have a catchier name though, methinks. The Carnival of Body Liberation!! Hee. I'm open to suggestions.

In conclusion, to me the phrase "Sex Positivity" has a new emphasis. It is a phrase that symbolizes the conscious maintenance of natural and healthy body/sexuality self-image in a dominating culture that is oppressive to bodies and sexuality in specific, historically and culturally defined ways.

Hmmm. Maybe the Carnival Of Everyone-Is-A-Juicy-Hottie? Still needs a little fine tuning... ;)


Monday, February 2, 2009

Men's Story Project Screening @ SF Independent Film Festival

If you missed the Men's Story Project last year (which I almost performed in, and also glowingly reviewed in this blog... this is some serious ish people!), you now have a chance to watch it, either in San Francisco (Roxie) or Berkeley (Shattuck Cinema). Screen dates are February 8th, 10th and 22nd. Click here for schedule and venue details.


Filmed at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley with a standing-room-only audience, this film shows the powerful debut presentation of the Men's Story Project - a new performance/dialogue project examining social ideas about masculinity for the purpose of social change.

Described by audience members as "groundbreaking," "transformative," and "something that needs to keep on happening," this performance highlights 16 Bay Area artists, activists, and first-time presenters, ages 22-60, sharing stories about their lives through slam poetry, monologues, music and dance.

The stories address subjects including platonic love between men; images of African American masculinity; religion, homophobia and HIV/AIDS; disability and sexuality; testicular cancer and wholeness; men's public restroom rituals; an Oakland activist's refusal to continue intergenerational patterns of violence; spirituality inside San Quentin; transgender identity and gender fluidity; relationships with fathers and other family members; and gratitude to lifelong mentors.

Presenters include Robert Haaland, the first transgender candidate elected to SF public office; Leroy Moore of Sins Invalid; Galen Peterson of Oakland's Art in Action; and members of the Berkeley and SF slam poetry championship teams.